Revelation 22:19 says, “And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book” (KJV). This verse is usually involved in the debate concerning eternal security. Does Revelation 22:19 mean that, after a person’s name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, it can at some time in the future be erased? In other words, can a Christian lose his salvation?
First, Scripture is clear that a true believer is kept secure by the power of God, sealed for the day of redemption (Ephesians 4:30), and of all those whom the Father has given to the Son, He will lose none of them (John 6:39). The Lord Jesus Christ proclaimed, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand” (John 10:28–29b). Salvation is God’s work, not ours (Titus 3:5), and it is His power that keeps us.
If the “anyone” referred to in Revelation 22:19 are not believers, who are they? In other words, who might want to either add to or take away from the words of the Bible? Most likely, this tampering with God’s Word would be done not by true believers but by those who only profess to be Christians and who suppose that their names are in the Book of Life. Generally speaking, the two main groups who have traditionally tampered with God’s revelation are pseudo-Christian cults and those who hold to very liberal theological beliefs. Many cults and theological liberals claim the name of Christ as their own, but they are not “born again”—the definitive biblical term for a Christian.
The Bible cites several examples of those who thought they were believers, but whose profession was proven to be false. In John 15, Jesus refers to them as branches that did not remain in Him, the true Vine, and therefore did not produce any fruit. We know they are false because “by their fruits you shall know them” (Matthew 7:16, 20); true disciples will exhibit the fruit of the Holy Spirit who resides within them (Galatians 5:22). In 2 Peter 2:22, false professors are dogs returning to their own vomit and a sow who “after washing herself returns to wallow in the mire” (ESV). The barren branch, the dog, and the pig are all symbols of those who profess to have salvation, but who have nothing more than their own righteousness to rely upon, not the righteousness of Christ that truly saves. It is doubtful that those who have repented of their sin and been born again would willingly tamper with God’s Word in this way—adding to it or taking from it. Purposefully corrupting God’s Word reveals a lack of faith.
There is another important consideration about the meaning of Revelation 22:19, and it involves translation. Most manuscripts do not even mention the “book of life”; instead, they have “tree of life.” Here is how Revelation 22:19 reads in the NIV: “If anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.” Other translations with “tree” instead of “book” are the NASB, ESV, NLT, HCSB, ISV, NET, and ASV, among others. The KJV stands nearly alone in translating it as the “book” of life. The error arose when Erasmus, in compiling his Greek text, was forced to translate the last six verses of Revelation from the Latin Vulgate into Greek. The “tree” became a “book” because a scribe had accidentally replaced the Latin lingo (“tree”) with libro (“book”). All translations that follow the Textus Receptus, such as the KJV, thus incorrectly say “book” instead of “tree” of life.
Arguing for the “tree of life” translation instead of the “book of life” translation are two other verses in the same chapter: Revelation 22:2 and 14. Both mention the “tree of life” and the “city” together, the same as verse 19 does. Also, the word portion or share is significant. The one who corrupts the Word of God will be deprived of access to the tree of life, despite whatever claim he thinks he has to that fruit.
Revelation 3:5 is another verse that impacts this issue. “He who overcomes . . . I will never blot out his name from the book of life.” The “overcomer” mentioned in this letter to Sardis is the Christian. Compare this with 1 John 5:4: “Everyone who is born of God overcomes the world.” And verse 5: “Who is he that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.” (See also 1 John 2:13.) All believers are “overcomers” in that they have been granted victory over the sin and unbelief of the world.
Some people see in Revelation 3:5 the picture of God’s pen poised, ready to strike out the name of any Christian who sins. They read into it something like this: “If you mess up and don’t win the victory, then you’re going to lose your salvation! In fact, I will erase your name from the Book of Life!” But this is NOT what the verse says. Jesus is giving a promise here, not a warning.
Never does Scripture say that God erases a believer’s name from the Lamb’s Book of Life—there is never even a warning that He is contemplating it! The wonderful promise of Revelation 3:5 is that Jesus will NOT erase one’s name. Speaking to the “overcomers”—all those redeemed by the blood of the Lamb—Jesus gives His word that He will not delete their names. He affirms that, once a name is there, it is there forever. This is based on the faithfulness of God.
The promise of Revelation 3:5 is directed to believers, who are secure in their salvation. In contrast, the warning of Revelation 22:19 is directed to unbelievers, who, rather than change their hearts toward God, attempt to change God’s Word to suit themselves. Such people will not eat of the tree of life.